It is not a secret. Humans can be selfish, quite selfish in fact. And, while adults are more skilled at tempering, or masking, their egocentrism, child are unashamed of their view that they are the center of all things. Egocentrism is adaptive and good from an evolutionary perspective. Babies and children need to be egocentric to survive. But, as children develop, become able to contribute to the group, and began to depend on more than just their immediate family, they begin to learn that others matter too. But, as parents already know, this process takes decades to complete, and families at left in the meantime with tension at home in the form of sibling rivalry.
Cue the brawling, crying, whining, taunting and tattling. If you have more than one child, you’ve heard it, “It’s mine! NO, it’s mine! Mom! Dad!” You can feel your shoulders start to hunch together, you rub your temples and then the yelling starts. How do you stop this vicious cycle of scream when siblings and family life are out of harmony?
Earliest Roots in Egocentrism
Sibling rivalry is the product of natural competition for scarce resources and it all starts with the quest for survival. Humankind, since its genesis, has evolved according to our Darwinian desire to be “selected” by nature. Human babies do not possess many favorable adaptations to enable their selection.
For a long time following birth, they are still soft blobs and must prey upon the altruism of their parents with a ear-piercing, unrelenting cry in order to survive. Helpless infants have must be selfish in their quest to acquire the ingredients for survival, like food, water, sanitation, love and warmth. Babies have evolved to survive through self-centered demanding behavior, called egocentrism.
As infants grow into toddlers and then preschoolers, their egocentrism curtails a bit, but is still readily prevalent. A young child’s perspective is often seen through a lovely shade of “me”. Let’s pretend as though you are blindfolded in a room with a 2-year-old and her mother, who is wearing blue pants. You ask the child if you know which color of pants her mother is wearing. A common response for the child is, “Yes, blue pants.” This occurs because the child can see their mother’s pants and are not able to take your blind-folded perspective.
Young, egocentric children often fail to be able to see other’s perspectives and, therefore, they behave in selfish, annoying and anti-social ways towards their siblings, and people in general. Sibling rivalry is a direct result of egocentrism, as well as other critical developmental factors.
It is Biological, Baby!
Because the roots of egocentrism are embedded within a young child’s quest for survival, we also can deduce that they are biological in nature. It then followsin that a child’s egocentric behavior is not necessarily indicative of a “bad” child or a sign of poor parenting.
Neurobiologically, a young child’s brain interprets data from the vantage point of “me.” The child’s brain essentially runs on a dynamic function, such that the input morphs to an output which favors the self. This means that no matter which variable you plug into the function, the equation will morph until it spits out the favored answer… “me!”
Jean Piaget, 20th century father of child psychology, called this phase in development pre-operational, meaning that the child is not yet ready to do concrete operations. Concrete operations is processing of information mentally. Prior to being able to complete concrete operations, children use physical processes to solve problems, like counting on ones fingers, or process data without conscious awareness. In the pre-operational phase, it is not that children do not think before they act, it is rather they don’t consciously process their actions. They respond to life’s input impulsively instead contemplatively.
It is not until a child is much older, less vulnerable and has better survival capabilities that his brain begins to switch gears from egocentrism to a more altruistic mode. Infants begin life with a completely egocentric paradigm, which slowly morphs as altruism begins to inform his interpretations over the course of his lifetime. This process occurs on an exponential trajectory over the first several years of life, slowing in the pre-adolescent phase and eventually plateauing in the young-adult years.
This means that a five year old child will behave selfishly at times and, at others, with care and concern for those around him. A child will not always have the capacity to always see other’s perspectives and be altruistic until the post-adolescent period and many theorists conjecture that many, if even few, adults ever reach this final stage in moral development.
What does Egocentrism have to do with Sibling Rivalry?
Now we understand that a child’s brain is wired to think selfishly, but how does that affect sibling relationships? Perhaps you have seen your children, and even baby, behave in altruistic ways that elicits tears of joy. Yes, children and babies can make beautiful and selfless gestures, but they are the exception and not the rule. There is evidence that babies are hard-wired for social behavior and this includes having an innate sense of morality. It takes time and effort to grow the altruistic seed, which is planted within the child.
For now, your children will feel threatened by their siblings, because siblings force them to share their sacred resources (e.g. food, space, toys and affection). Prior to the introduction of a new baby, the older sibling sees everything, including their parents, as belonging only to them. It is confusing and moreover threatening to a young child to have to share his parents with other children. His brain will begin firing off alarms as the threat (a.k.a new baby) imposes upon his ability to get what he wants and needs.
For households with slightly older children, siblings still feel threatened by each other, even if they are accustomed to sharing you with one another. They may play and be the best of buddies, but when push comes to shove their survivalist nature swings into gear and, under pressure, a child’s brain will resort to it’s most primal way of thinking. Therefore, the truck that a child likes will always be seen as “mine” when another child wants it, because the taking of the truck is a direct threat to the child’s survival.
It is not so much that young children do not want to love their siblings, it is that they are unable to consistently demonstrate loving behavior. They will, at times, get along swimmingly and, at other times, they will fight. When the pressure is on, there will be more fighting because their brains are triggering the limbic and sympathetic nervous system to a heightened threat level (i.e. fight or flight). Due to genetic variations, some children will be more prone than others to sibling rivalry. Moreover, some families will struggle more or less than their peers. Try to withhold judgement if your children are exceptionally altruistic, because in the early years it has less to do with your parenting and more to do with the child’s wiring.
How to Address Sibling Rivalry
Does this mean that parents should not address their child’s selfish behavior? Should we not expect the best from our children? Overall, parents need to respond to sibling rivalry with Intelligent Nest’s 3C’s of discipline (calm, confident, consistent) and just a touch of mercy and understanding. Expect that your child eventually will learn to be altruistic. Selfish behavior is not OK, but it is understandable. Fairly consistent kind, loving and selfless behavior is on the horizon, young children are just not there yet.